Telesur: TV Threat to U.S. Influence?

CARACAS, Venezuela — It has been labeled a weapon against “cultural imperialism,” the voice of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a threat to U.S. influence in Latin America, and “poison for the minds of people longing to be free.”

The object of such diverse descriptions is Telesur, a Caracas-based Spanish-language TV channel which became part of a war of words between Venezuela and the United States even before Chavez formally launched it on July 24 and said the network was vital to his vision of Latin American integration.

Telesur was conceived as a Latin American alternative to international networks like CNN, the BBC, TVE of Spain and Germany’s Deutsche Welle, all of which broadcast to Latin America in Spanish.

“We want to show Latin America through Latin American eyes,” said Aram Aharonian, Telesur’s director general. “The United States and Europe have dominated information beamed to our continent for decades. It is time to change that. They portray us in black and white. We are a region in Technicolor.”

Judging from Telesur’s programming in the first weeks of October, those colors are pink or red. So far, the new network resembles more a History Channel for left-wing intellectuals than a serious challenge to round-the-clock news broadcasts from the United States and Europe.

There were documentaries on the last days of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, the victory of the Sandinistas over Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, and the unsuccessful fight of the Montoneros movement against Argentine governments in the 1970s.

Rounding out the offer: documentaries on the harsh living conditions of miners in Bolivia and the situation in the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony where the Polisario Front and Morocco fought a 16-year war over a desolate desert region.

Such high-brow fare contrasts sharply with local TV programming in most of Latin America, where ratings are determined by light entertainment and telenovelas, soap operas that command huge audiences.

“We don’t have a way of measuring our audience yet,” said Aharonian, a Uruguayan journalist who is 59, wears his gray hair tied in a ponytail and speaks with the enthusiasm of a 20-year-old. “We estimate our present viewership at between two and seven million and we aim for 30 million.”

Telesur broadcasts expanded from an hour a day in the pilot phase to four hours by the time of the launch and six hours at present, re-broadcast four times each 24 hours.

By the end of the month, it is scheduled to go to 24 hours a day, with 10-minute newscasts at the top of the hour and two one-hour news programs during the day.

U.S. HOSTILITY PIQUES INTEREST

According to Aharonian, interest in Telesur surged after the U.S. House of Representatives adopted an amendment that authorized the U.S. government to counter the new network with broadcasts of its own.

The amendment was introduced by Connie Mack, a conservative Republican congressman from Florida who described Chavez as “an enemy of freedom” and said he wanted to use Telesur to “poison the mind of people longing to be free.”

“Mack did us a favor,” said Aharonian. “People from all over Latin America and the U.S. called us asking how they could get Telesur. He couldn’t have done better if he had worked for us.”

Broadcast over satellite, Telesur is a joint project of the governments of Venezuela, which provided 51 percent of the $10 million start-up capital, Argentina (20 percent), Cuba (19 percent) and Uruguay (10 percent). The partners agreed to share programming, such as documentaries, classic movies and films made by up-and-coming Latin directors.

Telesur is not the first attempt to produce television by Latin Americans for Latin Americans, though it is the first joint venture between governments.

In 1994, Reuters, Argentina’s Artear, Spain’s Antena 3 and the Miami-based network Telemundo joined up to form Telenoticias, a 24-hour news channel transmitted via satellite to cable and broadcast outlets in Latin America, Spain and the United States. It failed to capture a large audience and faded away after changing ownership twice.

Mexico’s television giant, Televisa, ran a 24-hour international service called ECO, compiled from correspondents around the world, for many years. ECO ended in 2001 when Televisa fired 400 employees.

Like its unsuccessful predecessors, Telesur is partly based on the premise that Latin Americans know little about each other but would like to know more, given the chance. One of the promotional trailers which now take up a good part of the network’s air time highlights the thinking.

The trailer shows a reporter asking six people in the street, apparently picked at random, to name the capital of France. They all have the right reply: Paris. The reporter then asks the same people to name the capital of Honduras.

“Guatemala,” says one. “Nicaragua,” says another. Others just shrug their shoulders. Only one has the right answer: Tegucigalpa. The trailer ends with the exhortation: “Lets get to know each other.”

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